Halfway through Monastery, its narrator, a writer and teacher of literature named Eduardo Halfon, is en route from his native Guatemala to Belize, where he has been invited to give a reading at a university. After a tense encounter with a thuggish border official—Halfon’s Guatemalan passport has expired, but he has a valid Spanish one—the battery in his borrowed car dies. Waiting for it to be repaired, he goes into a small restaurant where there is an enormous red macaw and orders a beer from the waitress, a young girl with a baby strapped to her back. A joyfully guiltless smoker, he is enjoying his beer and cigarette when the border official walks in. The guard pulls the waitress onto his lap, “his long-nailed hand holding her neck, like a hook,” while ordering pork carnitas and cracklings.
Halfon thinks—as he often does—about his Polish grandfather, a survivor of Sachsenhausen and Auschwitz, who used to tell him that the numbers tattooed on his arm were to remind him of his phone number. The border guard is wearing a ring that reminds Halfon of the one his grandfather had bought in 1945 and worn “for the rest of his life, for the next sixty years, on his right pinkie finger, as a way of mourning for his parents and siblings and friends and all the others exterminated by the Nazis in the ghettos and concentration camps.”
The passage that follows (and concludes this scene) exemplifies the themes and method of the three of Halfon’s fourteen books thus far translated into English—The Polish Boxer (2012), Monastery (2014), and, most recently, Mourning (2018)—all of which seem like parts of a single fictional project with recurring characters, details, settings, and preoccupations, and all narrated by “Eduardo Halfon.” Among these preoccupations (obsessions, really) are the legacy of violence and mass murder in Europe and Latin America; the frequency and facility with which the past intrudes upon the present; the quixotic effort to separate family myth from historical fact; and the ways in which pleasure—food, love, sex, humor, cigarettes, beer, the beauty of nature, and the surprises offered by travel—consoles us.
The section about Halfon’s encounter with the border guard typifies his style: simple declarative sentences punctuated by flights of rhetorical, incantatory lyricism. Halfon is so struck by the resemblance between the guard’s ring and that of his grandfather that he wonders if it was “exactly the same” one:
Or at least it was all exactly like the ring in my memory, the ring as I recalled it or as I wanted to recall it, on my grandfather’s pale and slightly crooked right pinkie finger. And although I knew it was impossible, even preposterous, even absurd, I couldn’t help imagining that this ring, on this greasy hand, was indeed my grandfather’s ring with…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.